Outlets have begun to unveil their reviews of the first several episodes of HBOs new epic fantasy Game of Thrones as we approach the Sunday night premier of the show. The televised series is based on the first novel in author George R.R. Martin’s heptalogy A Song of Ice and Fire (only four of the seven books have been released, much to the chagrin of anxious fans).
Game of Thrones is at once stark (yes pun) and lush, mythic and mundane, brutally raw and poetic. As dynamic and engaging as the novel is, (and we imagine the television series will be), it is impossible to hope that either or both will appeal to everyone.
Though the lions share (there I go again with the puns) of the feedback has been remarkably positive and enthused, there are some who find the series not to their liking. That is all well and good. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, and critics are in fact, paid to have them. When NY Times’ television critic Ginia Bellafante’s review of the program was released, however, a cry of outrage was sounded from women across the expanse of the blogosphere. We (as I do include myself in this) took umbrage, not with Ms. Bellafante’s negative assessment of the show, but rather her assessment of female viewers, and our ability to effectively discern when we are being “patronized.” As an admitted fantasy fan, and fan of this series in particular, I can assure Ms. Bellafante that I am perfectly capable of detecting condescension when I see, hear, or read it.
As someone who is also quite familiar with the sometimes hyperbolic attack-mode that the web can incite, it is not my intention to aggress Ms. Bellafonte. She is, clearly, a seasoned and polished professional who deserves our respect, and is, as stated, entitled to, and is in fact required to give, her opinion. I would like to address what I perceive to be some of the flaws in her argument.
Though Ms Bellafante does touch upon some of the particulars of character and story in her Game of Thrones review (though ever so briefly), her assessment of the show seems inaccurate at best (that it is a treatises on global warming because “winter is coming” and the seasons are long), and borderline offensive at worst. As to the idea that Game of Thrones is, essentially, and epically scaled Prius ad set in the fictional Middle-Ages, let us say that “Winter,” in the world of this series, represents (among other things) the dark seasons of our individual and collective lives. As far as the (ironically) supercilious tone of the review is concerned: The primary argument that Ms. Bellafante uses to frame her article is that the show is, essentially, “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.” The second undercurrent present in her piece (though she does not come out and say it) is that fantasy has no place on HBO, the beacon of quality television.
Let us address point A, first. Though Ms. Bellafante attests that she is certain “that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s” she display’s clear disdain for said women. She relegates them to what she perceives to be (as indicated by the tone of the piece) some fringe sector of womanhood when she follows her initial statement with:
“I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.”
Ah, personal anecdotal information as an accurate gauge of overarching societal trends. Well, in that case, then I know at least twenty women who would put The Hobbit at the higher end of their ideal book-club selections. Does that give me the right to categorically state that women, by-and-large, prefer fantasy fiction? No. Clearly not. Birds of a feather, as they say, flock together, so I am likely to know women who are similarly minded and inclined. My personal experience does not grant me (uh oh, here comes another pun) a birdseye view of our cultural mores. Nor am I granted the authority to speak for women as a collective. This, ultimately, is the crux of my issue with Ms. Bellafante’s argument.
The writer seems to take it upon herself to speak for women as a whole, which, (and let me look at my minutes here) as of our last meeting, we had not elected her to do. Worse, so much worse, she uses a far more grotesquely condescending tone towards the women she is ostensibly speaking for than this show could ever hope to do. In her opening complaints that the show is “too complex,” (in terms of the number of characters) to follow (which as one quick witted woman put it, is somewhat reminiscent of the “too many notes” critique in Amadeus), she uses this analogy: “If you can’t count cards, please return to reruns of ‘Sex and the City.’ ” This is offensive to women on so many levels, it almost elicits the phrase “self-hating.”
Her statements indicate that if you like Game of Thrones you are (perhaps) some freakish savant, and if you enjoy Sex and the City you are necessarily the idiot portion of the “idiot savant”; that no intelligent woman could ever, possibly, find value (though perhaps not equal value) in both. It essentially indicates (in the subtext) that Ms. Bellafante deems all women who do not share her personal tastes to be either odd, or stupid, or both. She patronizes her own readers in the same breath that she accuses HBO of “patronizing” its viewers.
The most outlandish, and in many ways fascinating, portion of her argument states that the network has heightened the sexual portion of the material in order ensnare the female audience. Forgive me, I had not read the headline-news-on-every-outlet-in-the-Universe that men had lost interest in sex. As to said lasciviousness, Ms. Bellafante theorizes that, “this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.” So we are now oversexed, “rain-women” who (likely) spend our time counting cards in Vegas strip clubs if we enjoy Game of Thrones. A woman is also incapable of engaging with a program that delves into the realm of the imagination, lest she is guaranteed at least one vicarious orgasm per episode, it would seem. Ah, there is the hyperbole of which I spoke. Forgive me, I retract the last.
I would like to assure Ms. Bellafante that it is the story and characters (which are richly drawn and complex) that keep the women readers (and soon to be viewers) engaged. The sexual nature of the material is present in the novels, however, and I, for one, will not apologize for finding the characters sexual encounters and discoveries engaging as well. Sex is a part of adult life, whether your having it at present or not, it is there, a part of our collective experience and therefore is as appropriate to explore as any other adult theme: Power, greed, ignorance, justice…
As to the second portion of Ms. Bellafante’s review (the notion that fantasy fiction is necessarily a lesser form of entertainment) the authors contempt for the genre is peppered throughout her argument. In one glaring example Ms. Bellafonte states that:
“The bigger question, though, is: What is “Game of Thrones” doing on HBO? The series claims as one of its executive producers the screenwriter and best-selling author David Benioff, whose excellent script for Spike Lee’s post-9/11 meditation, “25th Hour,” did not suggest a writer with Middle Earth proclivities.”
The language and tone of this statement gives every indication that the subtext is the following: “’25th Hour’ = valuable, ‘Middle-Earth proclivities’ = worthless endeavor.” It is as if she is asking how and why Mr. Benioff went astray.
Ms. Bellafante mocks the production’s use of the “Language Creation Society” to design a vocabulary for the Dothraki – a practice which is common and well respected in genre film and television. It speaks to a level of integrity and attention to detail that genre fans appreciate. To look at said care and attention with scorn speaks volumes about the author’s ignorance of the genre, and disrespect for the fans and creators that value it.
Ms. Bellafante’s concluding paragraph is perhaps the most blatant display of her disregard:
“When the network (HBO) ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga “True Blood,” things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. “Game of Thrones” serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.”
Clearly, not everyone is a fantasy fan; however, when a critic is reviewing a fantasy series, full disclosure would feel more professional and appropriate. As to the authors assertion that the structure of the show is an affront to women, there are times when a cultural phenomena begs for an examination of gender roles, and perceptions of women and men in the media. Certainly, when the filmmakers behind Sucker Punch hailed it as a “female empowerment film,” I was in vehement disagreement and found that the film was (in nearly every way) in fact just the opposite.
To assert that Game of Thrones is either inherently unappealing or patronizing to women feels self-serving, harmful to a legitimate gender dialogue, and inaccurate.
As to her description of the material as “boy fiction” – in truth, there is a wealth of rich and textured female and male characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. If said characters are reduced to broad strokes in the televised version, it will be a shock and a heartbreak for the fans Ms. Bellafonte seems to have so little regard for. From what we have seen that is not the case.
Again, we respect Ms. Bellafonte’s right to her opinion, and it’s fine if she didn’t enjoy the show, but the condescending language present in the piece “on behalf of women” is unnecessary, unsolicited and as stated, inaccurate. With all due respect Ms. Bellafante, you do not speak for me.
Game of Thrones premiers on HBO this Sunday, April17th.
For some other great posts and responses take a look at what these fine folks have to say — you can find even more links in their posts!
…more to come!